A get together during Lenten season is a yearly tradition of our family. I never miss one for it is the only time our big patriarchal clan gathers in one occasion aside from Christmas. This year, I broke the tradition because I chose to spend Holy Week in Apo Reef with my virtual friends, or to say it bluntly, with strangers. This was one of the reasons why cutting my stay short in our home province left me with a heavy heart as the jeepney, where I was sitting, moved too fast from my mom and relatives who were still waving their hands at me when they vanished through the distance.
Strangers can instantly become friends in cyberspace. People get to travel to far-flung areas by hopping from one travel website to another. This is how the contemporary world changed the way people meet and get introduced to places. However, nothing can still beat the experience of seeing these virtual faces move in action, hearing them send messages to you through their voices, and knowing that they do exist in real life. Same is true with having to savor the fresh air of the places you only see in the internet.
Is it worthy breaking a family tradition in exchange of conquering a new place with your virtual friends?
Under the bright and occult full moon, over a bottle of brandy, I was sitting next to four people I only first met before sunrise that day except for one. They are people whose middle name is Travel. As we settled ourselves comfortably on the sand outside our tents, we were also beginning to share our experiences during the course of our individual travels, including stories behind each quest which weren’t openly known. Each story told was crisp, unfiltered, and genuine.
Although I had the time to share my own, I reminded myself that I would learn more when I listen. So I consumed most of my time listening from their experiences and anecdotes in each trip they fulfilled domestically and internationally.
We all share the same penchant for traveling, but they traveled more often than I do, making me more inspired to continue my pursuit to reach every country in the globe. To navigate the whole world is everybody’s dream. Thus, when you are in the middle of somewhere where all around you speak of untainted beauty and bounty of life like that of Apo Reef, and you are with people who supply every grain of support you need, all the more you fuel that courage to explore the world.
That day, we were exploring Apo Reef.
I joined this trip after reading an invitation from Chino’s Facebook timeline. I have been raving about Apo Reef before. So upon seeing the opportunity to finally put the plan into reality, I immediately seized it without second thoughts.
We flew from Manila to San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, rode a van to Sablayan, then ferried by a motorized boat from the mainland to Apo Reef for three hours. Twenty minutes before reaching the island, our smooth sail was orchestrated by a herd of dolphins that was seemingly sunbathing few feet away from our boat. If it was just a preview of the whole trip, it had already surpassed my expectations.
We reached the island’s fine and cream-white shore that was made more gleaming by the sun three hours shy before twilight. We pitched our tents and unloaded our baggage after finding a shady area; then began exploring the place.
The lake lying at the heart of the island was a revelation. Its calmness was a therapy to our restless bodies. While discovering its mystic appeal when we were on board a raft, I was also discovering the characters of each person I was with. Jay is the kuya (older brother) of the group who always makes sure to sojourn around the country every month. Our itinerary wouldn’t be polished if not for Marx who juggles being a traveler and private employee in one. Joana is the muse of the group who shared to me that Calaguas is the most beautiful beach she’d seen. She had international trips first before venturing on local travels. On the other hand, the comical personality of Chino made everything light as we were moving to the other end of the lagoon.
I looked around me while on the raft. Every living thing seemed so alive. The buoyant leaves of the mangroves mirrored through the waters of the lagoon. The clouds were painted stunningly above the towering lighthouse. The whole place looked healthy— a clear sign that it is protected by people who care for our environment.
The group walked at wooden bamboos as we ended the tour at the lagoon and started traversing our way to the lighthouse. Above, we were enthralled by the full view of Apo Reef— diverse, teeming, and comforting. The lighthouse was situated perfectly there. If I didn’t know what lighthouses are for, I would think that they were made for humans to see the entirety of protected areas, because all landscapes look more picturesque when they are fully viewed above.
After spending sometime at the lighthouse, we all decided to hit the beach before feasting on our dinner. Under the watch of a lovely sunset, we enjoyed swimming on the clean waters of Apo Reef while observing how the timid sun disappeared on the other side of the island. The reddish-orange sky mixed with the white thin clouds was the mark it left for us to adore.
It was a timeless beauty which could be best captured by our eyes, not by any kind of lens; and which could be best described by our joy, not by our words.
The morning came too quick the next day for our final immersion activity. We boarded the boat again for an underwater tour. Below the sea level, marine life was very abundant and admirable. Corals in different forms, fishes in various sizes, and a sea that was so clean and clear had blown my consciousness away. Although I have an impaired vision, it was one of the most beautiful scenes my eyes had gazed upon. It was incomparable.
Two hours had passed and we were back in our camp to pack. On Easter Sunday, we sailed back to the mainland of Sablayan after breakfast, spent another night there, and then rode a bus to Manila. When I reached home, I started receiving text messages from my parents and relatives telling me how our yearly affair in our province went without me.
They told me that they missed me. I missed them too. But I didn’t have any regrets spending it in Apo Reef with strangers or virtual friends because at the end of that trip, I already stopped calling them strangers and I have learned to cross the term “virtual” before their names.
Our encounter in Apo Reef was real. And I was glad it happened.